As you’ll know by now, I’m big on thinking the right things. Should a thought strike me that m’colleague Rod Liddle would not describe as ‘bien-pensant’, then I will of course shy away from it, in a blind panic, for fear that my pensée should be considered insufficiently bien. Right now, however, I’m having doubts about the catechism. The liberal elite may take away my badge.
Presumptuous as it may be, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Spectator readers are not immediately familiar with the work of a comedian called Daniel O’Reilly, otherwise known as Dapper Laughs. He’s an internet phenomenon and — let’s not beat around the bush here — shudderingly grim. The humour is all of the ‘birds are all gagging for it, and if they aren’t have a go anyway’ variety, and he rose to prominence on something called Vine, which is a web video platform for people who lack the concentration span for YouTube.
Last week, after a convoluted fuss we have not the space to examine — but was broadly centred around him and everybody who likes him being terrible arseholes — an internet petition arose which called for him to be dumped by ITV, which had given him a series. And, while this was in the process of garnering medium-ish attention (50,000 signatures, or thereabouts) the Daily Mirror unearthed a video of him at a gig, telling an audience member that she was ‘gagging for a rape’. And ITV, badly spooked, gave him the shove.
Now I, too, would prefer to live in a world without the likes of O’Reilly on the telly. The thing is, I would prefer this situation to come about because nobody wanted to watch them. ‘This,’ I would prefer literally everybody to be saying to themselves, ‘is horrid and not for me, and thus I shall watch Modern Family instead, or maybe a re-run of Seinfeld.’ However, with over half a million followers on this Vine thingy of his, and an iTunes top ten single to his name, this plainly isn’t the case. Clearly, there exists a sizeable body of people who did, in fact, want to watch him on ITV2. But now, thanks to the objections of others, who didn’t, they will not. Which seems, to me, to be a problem. Generally, I’m quite Whiggish in my view of popular culture. I think it has clout and influence, and because of this I’m generally of the view that there are things, if you help shape popular culture, that you should not do. Yet it seems to me that there’s a great gulf between saying you shouldn’t do something and saying you shouldn’t be allowed to do something; which I suppose is the difference between being a preachy liberal (which I surely am), and being a puritan (which I’m pretty certain I am not).
O’Reilly is easy to kick, because he is so very stupid. He does not employ — and perhaps cannot comprehend — the veneer of irony that allows many smarter comedians to step into similar terrain, often fully aware that it’s the sub-joke, not the meta-joke, which gets the laugh. Lord knows what he actually thinks about anything, for this is not a man who is ever going to write an erudite column in his own defence for the website of the Guardian. As ever, with this sort of fuss, there’s a disparity of opinion about power at its centre. To his detractors, he’s the sexist patriarchy incarnate, jeering at women in the manner of violent and overbearing males for ever. Yet his fans are predominantly young, white working-class men; a part of society outperformed by almost every other. When they leer at women in the street, chances are those women have far better prospects than they do.
If they leer less because Dapper Laughs isn’t on ITV2, then I suppose that’s all to the good. It seems to me, though, that this is how you begin to lose an important argument. Consider the alternative comedians of the 1980s, and the manner in which they colonised the centre and ceased to be alternative at all. It wasn’t thanks to petitions to keep Jim Davidson and Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown off the telly, was it? No, it was by winning a battle of wits; making it funnier to laugh at nasty bigotry than with it.
I am not sure that anybody has quite figured out a strategy for laughing at the likes of Daniel O’Reilly. Not without punching down, at any rate, rather than punching up. And so we have this sort of thing instead, where people don’t joke but shout, and as a result, don’t necessarily win any sort of battle at all.
The Daily Mail’s headline this week ‘Is there no one left in Britain who can make a sandwich?’ is one, I think, that history will not forget. No Britons, they reported, are prepared to work in this country’s pre-eminent sandwich factory. So, they’re shipping in Hungarians next.
What happens next, though? When all of the EU is too affluent to humble itself to sandwich work, I suppose we’ll have to move on to Africans, or the Chinese. In time, though, humanity will hit the sandwich horizon. No more sandwiches. Just single bits of bread, with stuff on them. Like Denmark.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.